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The Rhone Valley in California - Part 1

by Sara and Monty Preiser

It’s neither fortunate nor unfortunate -- just fact -- that our ultra serious interest in wines began about the same time as French weather took its now more than a decade turn for the worse. It isn’t surprising, then, that we and so many of our contemporaries prefer the more fruit forward American Pacific Coast products. There is one major exception to this philosophy, however, and that is as it relates to wines from the Rhone region of France.

We have always loved French Rhones, and continue to do so. In apposite to the poor weather in the rest of France, the Rhone region has enjoyed more than its share of perfect climactic conditions leading to a number of consecutive superb vintages. Though the string of good weather ended with the huge floods of 2002, the present generation of winemakers accumulated a plethora of knowledge, creativity, and confidence during the good years, and are continuing to produce exceptional wines.

Now, we are happy to note, American west coast wineries are producing outstanding wines from traditional Rhone grapes. This has not been the case for very long, despite the valiant efforts of the famed self proclaimed “Rhone Rangers,” a group of vintners who, in the 1980s, established a non-profit, educational organization designed to advance the public’s knowledge of the Rhone varietal wine grapes grown in America. These pioneers put forth an outstanding effort, but in reality were not overly successful. Until recently, only those with a deep interest in wine knew anything about such then strange sounding grapes such as Viognier, Marsanne, Syrah, or Grenache. This is not too surprising, not only because the early bottles of America Rhones left something to be desired, but because their French cousins continued to be outstanding, and, thus, consumed.

Wine has been produced in the Rhone Valley for over 500 years. The steep valleys of the North serve as home for producers such as Guigal and Jaboulet who make small quantities of marvelous quality, dark, powerful, spicy reds from 100% Syrah (think Hermitage and Cote Rotie). Whites in the North are produced from Viognier in Condrieu and Chateau Grillet, and from the Marsanne and Rousanne grapes in Hermitage. These are intense, full-bodied and aromatic.

The southern Rhone is flatter and hotter than the North, and contains most of the Cotes du Rhone vineyards. About 95% of the region's total production is here, and there are enough varieties to allow for a vast number of blends. In this region is made the famed Chateauneuf-du-Pape [shah-toh-nuhf-doo-PAHP], usually big, spicy, and rich. It can also be a light Beaujolais style red, as well as a white. The whites are usually crisp with flavors hinting of peaches, pears, melons, and, sometimes, licorice. We like Chateauneuf-du-Pape so well that we will look at it a little closer at the end of today’s column.

In total, the Rhone region is one of the larger appellations in France, stretching along the banks of the Rhone River from Vienne to Valence, almost to Avignon. The very basic appellation controlée is labeled simply as “Cotes du Rhone.” These wines are fairly fruity, somewhat like Beaujolais, and are intended for early drinking. A step up are the “Cotes du Rhone-Villages” wines, made from grapes grown around specific towns and held to a higher quality standard. Finally, there are the wines that are labeled with the name of a specific village, which is usually seen listed after the words “Cotes du Rhone” (i.e, Domaine de Beaurenard (the winery) Cotes du Rhone Villages Rasteau).

There are over 10,000 producers making around 300 million bottles of Cotes du Rhone every year, and the French government has approved about 21 varieties of grapes for this Valley. The dominant varieties are Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, and Cinsault, with significant contributions by Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Carignane, and Counoise. However, only a handful of these varieties are grown in significant quantities anywhere in the world. Growers in the U.S. are planting only about 8 – 10 of them (as well as Durif -- in California called “Petite Sirah” -- a grape that originated in the Rhone but is grown primarily in California today).

Let’s tale a look at the grapes that are part of the Rhone Valley:

Bourboulenc: Grown in southern France, it is one of the 13 permitted Chateauneuf-du-Pape varietals. Bourboulenc is said to provide freshness and acidity in blends.

Clairette Blanc: In the Southern Rhone and the Languedoc regions, Clairette provides the base for white blends. It has low acidity, high alcohol, floral perfume, and is commonly blended with Grenache Blanc or Ugni Blanc. In the central Rhone it is blended with Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains to make the sparkling Clairette de Die.

Grenache Blanc: This is the white-berried equivalent of Grenache Noir, and, like its red variant, is drought-resistant, vigorous, and easy to graft. The varietal originated in Spain and spread to France where it has thrived in the vineyards of the Rhone Valley. Its high sugar and high acid produce wines that are (surprise) high in alcohol, with green apple flavors and aromas. Although it can stand confidently on its own, its crispness and long finish make it a tremendous blending component.

Marsanne: Used extensively in the Southern Rhone, this is a hardy grape that produces a full-bodied wine. Its fruity flavor makes it popular for blending, though it is also made as a stand alone wine, especially in the U.S. One can look for melon tones and good minerality.

Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains: This may be the oldest known wine grape varietal. Its berries, as the name suggests, are small, and the grape produces wines with elegantly floral aromatics. In the southern Rhone it is often blended with Clairette to make a sparkling, and bottled alone to make a sweet wine.

Picardin: But for its inclusion as one of the 13 permitted Chateauneuf-du-Pape varietals, this grape may have totally disappeared. Our research shows there is some doubt of its existence at all, as experts have not been able to find an individual variety corresponding to what growers call Picardin -- samples usually turn out to be either Clairette or Bourbelenc. Picardin is typically described as fairly colorless with a light muskiness.

Picpoul/Piquepoul Blanc: Native to the Languedoc, it has a high acidity must, a floral nose, and soft tannins. Though not prominent, it is still used in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Roussanne: This grape is high in acidity and in aromatic qualities, and will often age well, something most other Rhone whites do not. In the Southern Rhone, Roussanne is often the premium component of white blends as it adds honey and apricot flavors. In the U.S. it is used either to add the same flavors, or can be bottled as a stand alone.

Ugni Blanc: Most know this grape by its Italian name -- Trebbiano. In Cognac, it forms the base for brandy. Although not well know, it may be France’s most planted grape, and produces more wine than any other. It is relatively low in alcohol. but high in acidity, producing wines with delicate fruit and floral aromas. Benessere (in the United States) has been growing Ugni Blanc/Trebbiano for a few years andis using it in their Sauvignon Blanc.

Viognier: Long a prized variety in France, it is just now bursting forth in quality and recognition in the U.S. In the vineyard acid levels tend to be low, while in the bottle it can exhibit a deep, yellow color, and an exquisite, exotic nose – apricots, pears, tropical fruits. In the Northern Rhone, Viognier is the basis of Condrieu and Chateau-Grillet. In the U.S., it is a good blend but now making superb stand alones.

Note on Chateauneuf-du-Pape:

This important appellation surrounds (not surprisingly) the village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which is located in between Orange and Avignon in the southern portion of the Rhone region. Its name means "new castle of the pope," referring to the summer palace built in the area during the 1300s and used by the popes from Avignon. In 1923 Chateauneuf-du-Pape was the first area to adopt strict rules for grape growing and winemaking, and these rules were the basis for France's national system, Appellation D’Origine Controlee, which was implemented in 1936. French law permits Chateauneuf-du-Pape to include thirteen red and white grapes. The reds include Grenache Noir, Cinsault, Counoise, Mourvedre, Muscardine, Syrah, Terret Noir, and Vaccarèse. Permitted white varieties are Bourboulenc, Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Picardan, Roussanne, and Piquepoul (which has a red version that is rarely grown). Though red grapes make up approximately 97 % of this region, something of interest occurs when wines are blended -- it is not unusual, or illegal, to blend white varieties into red wines. The primary purpose is to soften some of the bigger and bolder wines. Insofar as alcohol, the minimum is a high 12.5 % which is easily reached because the stony soil in this hotter area retains heat into the evening hours and allows the grapes to ripen long enough to obtain high sugar, yielding high alcohol levels after fermentation.

Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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